Scaramouche (1952)

Scaramouche
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: George Sidney
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Scaramouche 1952

Born in Italy, the author Rafael Sabatini had lived in England since 1892—but when the First World War broke out, faced with Italian conscription, he finally naturalized, then served throughout the war as a translator for British Intelligence. Though he never said why, working for the spy service darkened Sabatini’s worldview, and when he returned to writing after the war, his first novel was the bitter and scathing Scaramouche (1921), a best-selling story of romance, revolution, and above all, revenge. This MGM adaptation leaves out most of the politics, but the romance and revenge are front and center.

“He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad”: the famous first line of the novel, inscribed as well on Sabatini’s tomb, also starts the film—though it will be awhile before we see the protagonist to whom it applies. First we’re introduced to the Duc de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), a sneering aristo whose hobby is picking fights with other men and then slaying them “honorably” in sword duels. The duke is gently scolded for this lethal pursuit by the Queen of France, who thinks he needs to settle down, and selects one of her demoiselles, Aline (Janet Leigh, radiant), to be his future bride. Her Majesty also complains about the rude political pamphlets written by the revolutionary who uses the pseudonym Marcus Brutus, and the duke vows to discover and deal with him in his usual fashion.

Background established, we finally meet André Moreau (Stewart Granger), a scapegrace young wit, romancer, and philosopher of life, paying a midnight visit to a traveling Commedia dell’Arte troupe to make love to its leading lady, Lenore (Eleanor Parker). Moreau is also besties with Philippe de Vilmorin, who’s secretly that Marcus Brutus being pursued by the duke’s goons. Moreau promises to help him, but is unable to prevent de Maynes from maneuvering Philippe into a duel and killing him before his eyes. Moreau swears to avenge Philippe, but barely escapes himself, and is forced to hide in Lenore’s comedy troupe, adopting the impudent rôle (and impudent mask) of Scaramouche. The laughing scoundrel finds a purpose at last.

Though Granger, when he came to MGM, stipulated in his contract that he get the lead in Scaramouche, he’s not ideal for the rôle: his mockery is joyless, and he lacks the comic touch for his bits with the Commedia. In short, he’s not funny enough for Sabatini’s scornful clown. And the less said about his unconvincing love scenes with Leigh and Parker, the better. However, Granger brings two powerful assets to the part, a feel for grim vengeance, and the skilled swordplay that’s central to the movie’s final third. There are fine learning-to-fence montages as Moreau trains with two master swordsmen, scenes that reflect the serious training Granger himself undertook in preparation for the picture. He does his own stunts, and both Granger and Ferrer (a dancer, and it shows) do all their own fencing, most notably in the justly-famous seven-and-a-half-minute duel in a Paris theater that serves as the climax of the story. That duel alone is worth the price of admission, and is a thoroughly satisfying payoff to the ninety minutes of set-up that give it weight. Trust me, it’s probably the best scene with a hero wearing skin-tight striped leggings in all of cinema.

Scaramouche (1923)

Scaramouche
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1923
Director: Rex Ingram
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Scaramouche

You know a film adaptation is good when it makes you want to go back and re-read the book. Scaramouche is a real gem, and a close adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s novel, which had been a recent (1921) best-seller. The production has the same director and cast as the previous year’s Prisoner of Zenda, but with a swap at the top, Ramon Novarro cast as the romantic lead, André-Louis Moreau, and Lewis Stone taking the part of the supporting villain, the Marquis d’Azyr. It was a good move, as the fiery young Novarro was perfect for the role of Moreau/Scaramouche—in fact, much better suited than the rather stolid Stewart Granger in the better-known 1952 version.

It’s France under Louis XVI, and we’re back in Mordor again, with the populace ground down by the oppressive nobility. Many of the bloated aristocrats are hilarious caricatures—the Minister of Justice could pass for Baron Harkonnen. The movie starts out a little slow, establishing its characters and Moreau’s reasons for revenge on the aristos, but really gets moving once he’s on the run and joins a troupe of traveling actors. As a stage performer, Novarro gets to unleash his undeniable charm, and once he dons the striped outfit of Scaramouche we’re off to the races. The film spends an hour covering the same ground as the ’52 version—the first, more personal half of the novel—and then goes beyond into the politics, glories, and horrors of the French Revolution, which are depicted convincingly. The costumes and make-up are superb, and in a series of dueling scenes we see the first really good fencing of the silent era, swordplay both persuasive and exciting. And instead of the usual contrived happy ending, the film is true to its source and retains the rather dark finish of Sabatini’s novel. Aux armes, mes camarades! Visual bonus: snuff boxes and quizzing glasses!

 

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Rating: ****
Origin: Japan, 1954
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Source: Criterion Collection DVD

Samurai I- Musashi Miyamoto

Toshiro Mifune, still relatively early in his career, stars as Musashi Miyamoto, the Japanese culture hero who virtually defines Bushido, the warrior code of the samurai. This is the first movie in a trilogy adapting Eiji Yoshikawa’s long (really long) novel fictionalizing Musashi’s early life, originally serialized from 1935 to 1939. Director Hiroshi Inagaki was such a big fan of the work this is actually the second trilogy he’d made from it: unfortunately the first three films, made in 1940 to 1942, are now lost.

Though we Westerners most often associate Mifune with the classic films of the great director Akira Kurosawa, he actually made more movies with Inagaki, working with him from the mid-forties to the end of the sixties. This prestige film for the Toho studio was their first big-budget production together, and it was a hit even overseas, where it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1955. It’s certainly gorgeous: Inagaki was a master of color, though unlike Kurosawa his compositions tend to be more pretty than striking. He was as adept with character scenes as with action, and his establishing shots of the Japanese countryside are beautiful.

The film opens with Musashi in his late teens, a country samurai from the village of Miyamoto still named Takezo. He and his friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) naively leave the town to find fame and glory as warriors, joining the local army on the eve of the Battle of Sekigahara. Unfortunately, the side they join is the losing one, and they must flee to avoid the massacre of their army’s survivors. They fall in with petty criminals, a woman and her daughter who’ve been fencing stolen goods for a band of brigands. And suddenly we’re in a soap opera: Matahachi, who’d left behind a fiancée in the village named Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), makes a play for the daughter, Akemi, who rejects him because she’s favors Takezo. The brigands suddenly appear, demanding all the loot, and for the first time Takezo shows his talent for fighting by driving them away and killing their leader—all with a wooden sword! The mother, Oko, then makes a pass at Takezo, but he runs off, so she settles for Matahachi.

All of this is to set up Takezo’s hopeless love affair with Otsu, which will be the romantic pulse of the rest of the trilogy. Takezo is intent on returning to Miyamoto to tell Otsu that Matahachi still lives, but on the way he’s detained at a checkpoint; he rashly cuts his way through the soldiers, and from that point on he’s a hunted outlaw. He goes from bad to worse, a feral fugitive in the woods lashing out at the hapless peasant troops sent to capture him, until Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe), the Buddhist priest of the Miyamoto temple, uses Otsu as bait and takes him into his custody. Sensing a powerful spirit beneath the savagery, Takuan sets out to tame the wild Takezo, hanging him bound for a tree for days to teach him humility, and eventually locking him in a castle attic for three years with nothing but a library of books.

Mifune is great as Takezo, angry at the world, yet unsure of himself and vulnerable, perfectly offset by Onoe as the jovial but steely priest. And Yachigusa is appealing and determined as Otsu, initially afraid of Takezo and blaming him for the loss of Matahachi, yet inescapably drawn to the wild man’s vulnerable heart. The priest’s firm persistence wins out, redirecting Takezo’s strength and spirit until he’s transformed into the self-controlled Musashi, who then sets out to find wisdom as a wandering swordsman. (Like you do.)

The historical Musashi, who fought his first duel at thirteen, avoided all romantic attachments, never served a samurai lord, and eventually wrote the classic Book of Five Rings, was a far more unusual man than the rather conventionally noble samurai represented in Inagaki’s trilogy. But Samurai I nonetheless does a fine job of setting up the spiritual journey (with swordplay interludes) to follow.